August 10, 2015

Party Conflict in RPGs

Five Flavors of Intra-Party Conflict
Intra-party conflict in RPGs commonly comes in five different “flavors.”
  1. Organic Disagreement
  2. Explicit Competition
  3. Traitor as PC-NPC
  4. Clashing Ideals
  5. Director Stance

For each, I’m going to describe the conflict, how it’s used, and what dangers are inherent in it.  I will then offer a tip for GMs who find themselves refereeing that conflict.  It’s tricky, handling party treason.
benedict arnold.jpg
Benedict Arnold: Iconic American traitor

My philosophical stance that underlies these tips is that we play RPGs to have fun, and that the GM’s job is to facilitate a fun, exciting game.  You don’t facilitate a player vs. player conflict; you referee it or prevent it so that you can facilitate a fun dramatic moment between characters - not an un-fun conflict between players.  I recognize that other GMs have different ideas about this, but I respectfully disagree with them.

Organic Disagreement

Key concepts review:  

The most common conflict occurs when the players, immersed in actor stance, have an in-character disagreement.  The disagreement rises to a serious conflict that could be overcome by stepping back from the game world frame into the social or game frame and discussing OOC reasons why the inciting player chose the actions they did for their character.  But for any number of reasons, the players don’t do that.  A common reason is that it’s fun to have a row in character -- though different players tolerate this to different degrees, so be careful!  Other possible reasons include authorial independence:  Where a player prioritizes control over their character’s actions over party harmony, e.g. “This is how my character would act, and I don’t want your OOC concerns affecting my decisions about my character’s actions.”  

In organic disagreements, conflict is player vs. player and character vs. character at the same time, because the players are fully immersed in the game world frame / actor stance.  When players’ autonomy over their own characters is so strong that they act in character without OOC consideration for one another as players, there is (by definition) no social contract that says that the players will choose character actions that will not hurt the feelings of other players.  

GM Tip:  Priorities, people!  When organic conflict arises, remind the players that they are all friends, and it should be OK to sacrifice a little autonomy over their characters’ actions in order to avoid annoying their friends around the table.  This establishes a norm of respecting each other as players first, and respecting each other’s autonomy over their character second.  

Explicit Competition

Key concepts review:

Some RPGs are pitched as explicitly competitive adventures or campaigns, where the PCs are forced to work together, but have their own, competing agendas.  This is a common style for games like Vampire and Ars Magica, and for Elysium Style LARP (which arose from Vampire).  At the start of the game, the GM ensures that all the players accept the competitive premise and design characters who will be fun to play in that sort of scenario.  Players can choose to play characters out to win, out to fail horribly, out to be sympathetic underdogs caught in the fray, or doomed heroes who put themselves above the fray, and are torn apart as a result.  These games are rarely at the Hero rung or higher for mood.

In explicit competition, the conflict is player vs. player, where the competitive skill of the players determines the final outcome.  Will Andy’s character become Prince?  Or will Betty’s?  Because of the explicit nature of the game, the conflict is an accepted part of the game frame understanding of events, and does not affect the social frame relationship between the players.  

GM Tip:  Just because the players accept a competitive premise doesn’t mean they’ll take losing well.  Anyone can be a sore loser, and sometimes they’re justified (such as when a player exploits a rules loophole to win the conflict).  GMs should make sure to be a fair referees in explicitly competitive games; and when players win unfairly, GMs should shift the blame to themselves and act to restore fairness somehow.  (It’s a hard balancing act!  Just look at all the drama in Vampire LARP communities!)

Traitor PC-NPC

Sub-types of this flavor of betrayal are the key concepts to review:
  • Face-Heel Turn, where the traitor is initially loyal, then changes sides
    • Subtrope: Forced Into Evil, which happens when a character is taken over by the GM due to madness, mind control, possession, etc. (see Director Stance, below)
    • Subtrope: Face-Monster Turn, which is where the character is turned permanently into a monster, such as by a vampire bite, werewolf curse, etc.
  • The Mole, where the traitor was a traitor all along

Perhaps the most common (and easiest) way to handle party betrayal in a Hero-rung game or higher is to allow a party traitor, but treat it like that player is playing an NPC.  The PC-NPC acts like a typical PC while adventuring with the party, until their treason is revealed.  At that point, there is a final confrontation, and the traitor is killed or escapes to become an NPC.  Regardless, once the traitor’s actions are no longer secret, the traitor’s player has to make a new character.  This is a good way to handle party traitors in D&D and similar heroic-mood RPG scenarios.

Because the traitor player is acting with the permission of the GM in the role of a party antagonist, the treason is acceptable.  The conflict is character vs. character.  The GM uses their power to maintain the traitor’s secrecy until the climactic betrayal, at which point the GM uses their power to turn the traitor PC into an NPC.  The traitor’s player is seen as helping the GM make the game more fun, rather than betraying the other players.  This makes it acceptable within the game frame, in the same way that the GM using an NPC to betray the other player characters is acceptable.

GM Tip:  This is probably the most tame kind of intra-party conflict.  But some players are sensitive to any disharmony in the group, or just don’t like surprises.  In the pitch, make sure the players know that there might be a party traitor.  Then they’ll be eagerly anticipating the climactic betrayal, instead of surprised and unhappy about it.  Also, make sure to let the betrayed characters can get their revenge against the traitor.  Otherwise, there could be some bleed-out resentment.

Clashing Ideals

Key concept review:

In just about any kind of game up to (but not including) the superhero rung, the GM can engineer a situation where any solution the PCs seek inevitably harms another PC’s agenda.  In that case, the players must choose how they’ll handle it.  Their choices vary between extreme harmony and extreme disharmony:
  • With extreme harmony, the PCs negotiate and come to a consensus on their solution.  “OK, we’ll go with Andy’s tactic, but that will hurt Betty’s agenda.  So next chance we get, we’ll go make it right, fix the damage we did, and try to advance her agenda.”  In this case, they accept a difficult negotiation, followed by a fairly harmonious reconciliation.
  • With extreme disharmony, one or a group of PCs seize the initiative and act on their own, choosing an option that hurts another character’s agenda.  Then they have a long, hard road to reconciliation afterwards.  “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” is not always true!

This sort of conflict is designed to create dramatic character vs. character conflict within the party temporarily.  The players, acting in character, have to negotiate both the resolution of the challenge (who gets the shaft?) and the reconciliation of the conflict (how can the shafted PC forgive the others?).  The players usually have OOC motives here (that’s what hooks are, after all - expressions of OOC motives), and might suffer some bleed-out into player vs. player conflict if they cannot come to a solution that satisfies all the players.  Ironically, there might be bleed-in later as a player might be offended by being shafted, and become more unforgiving than their character would be.

GM Tip:  If the players cannot come to an agreement in character, ask them to talk about it out of character.  If they cannot come to an agreement out of character, you have to modify the situation so that they can.  It’s always better to retcon something than to have the players hate each other (and you) for putting them in a spot they’re uncomfortable with OOC, as humans with friendships and feelings.

Director Stance

Key concept review:
  • Flaws as author stance empowerment

Many RPGs encourage director stance character vs. character (instead of player vs. player) conflict.  Fiasco is entirely based on it.  Fate has a Compel mechanic that allows players and GMs to make each other act irresponsibly and possibly against party interests.  Indie RPG Unsung has this mechanic as well. Many RPGs have forced-behavior mechanics such as Flaws (Champions, World of Darkness) or stress mechanics (Call of Cthulhu, Werewolf: the Apocalypse) that cause characters to act irrationally.  When the system forces a character to act against the party interest, the player is not at fault, making it an author or director stance decision.  

The conflict here is explicitly character vs. character.  The players are fully aware that the player whose character commits treason against the party is acting based on author or director stance, game frame, impulses.  Events proceed from the understanding that the character acted irresponsibly or selfishly, not the player, and the conflict never bleeds out of the game world frame.

GM Tip:  Most games with mechanics that compel other players’ behavior usually have a pressure-release valve in the form of a veto of some kind.  Even where there is no veto, if a player is uncomfortable being forced into a decision for their character that they are unhappy with, use your GM fiat to undo the mechanical compulsion, fudge a roll, or ignore the rule.  It’s better to cheat a little than to ruin someone’s fun.